Hop with the hornbill


The Ao dance is said to be modelled on the hop-skip routine of a male hornbill. All photos are by LISAPILA ANAR

LONGKHUM VILLAGE in northern Nagaland is a legendary soul trapper. The dominant Aos, one of this frontier northeastern state’s 16 tribes, believe a person has to revisit the village to retrieve his or her soul left behind during the first trip. Break the rule, and your spirit will turn into an eagle to haunt Longkhum (Eagle’s Nest) forever.

Nagas are in awe of the eagle. But this big bird doesn’t move spirits as much as the hornbill. Certainly not at Kisama, 170 km south of Longkhum (and 12 km from Nagaland capital Kohima).

Naga folklore extols the hornbill. A Zeme Naga tale relates how a young man, tormented by his wicked stepmother, turned into a hornbill and soared into oblivion after promising to visit his village once a year. During such a visit, he plucked feathers from his body and presented them to his girlfriends, now married, out of affection. That was the last time villagers saw the bird, but his feathers kept dancing on human crowns at annual festivals thereafter.

Hunted for its black and white plumes that embellish the Naga cultural palette, the hornbill has almost vanished. But it is the king of birds in Nagaland, representing nobility, bravery, beauty, fertility and social values. And because of its roar-like call, its strength is believed to equal that of a tiger that personifies the quintessential warrior.

Big bird over big cat

FOR DECADES, the tiger spirit dominated the hornbill spirit in Nagaland. Peace dawned in 1997 after a militant outfit declared truce to sheath their warrior instincts. As grace and goodwill got the better of animosity, a cash-strapped government realized it needed to capitalize on the niche tourists’ craze for exploring the unexplored. It thought about an easily accessible ‘showroom’ for the Naga ethnic universe. The seven-day Hornbill Festival was thus born on 1 December 2000.

“We have always had cultural shows comprising all our tribes on our Statehood Day. But we wanted a major annual event keeping the government flavour to a minimum. The Kisama Heritage Village was subsequently identified and developed as a permanent venue to showcase the Naga way of life, the arts, culture, cuisine and everything else,” says tourism parliamentary secretary Yitachu. “Kisama is a microcosm of Nagaland, where you get to experience what might otherwise take you months and miles to.”

Kisama, on National Highway 39, happened in 2003 after two villages – Kigwema and Phesama – shared land for the government to build the permanent venue for Hornbill Festival. Kisama, by the way, is an acronym of Kigwema and Phesama, both Angami Naga villages (‘ma’ in the Angami dialect means village).

Mystic morungs

APART FROM the obvious – arena, halls, handicraft outlets, et al – the Kisama complex is divided into tribe-wise ‘morungs’ or youth dormitories that in days of yore molded boys into men besides ensuring community bonding. Unlike the real ones, these morungs do not sport animal skulls, but they do provide some glimpses into each tribe’s cultural wealth. Each also has a courtyard where the respective tribe displays dances and compressed festival rites that are otherwise spread across the calendar year.

Konyak men relishing rice beer inside a showpiece morung

“I had read about the Nagas and their head-hunting ways. But this is something else, and I am impressed,” says Friedrich Lang from Germany. The 11th edition of the festival earlier this month was an eye opener for Kolkata-based Jayanta Ghosh too. “I had this idea they (the tribes) were more or less the same. The underlying variety transports you to a different era,” he says.

But how do you, as an outsider, tell one tribe from the other? “It’s complicated and difficult even for us, so don’t even try it,” says civil servant Chubasangla Anar, a Sangtam Naga, in mock-rebuke. 

Exotic eats

NAGAS ARE passionate about their food. Soon enough, aroma and taste take over the sights and sounds at Kisama. A Naga kitchen adjoining each morung offers a smattering of exotic dishes; so does an association of wives of Nagaland’s elites.

Pork dominates Naga cuisine. Other meats are not far behind. There’s hope for the vegetarians too, if in some cases one can withstand fiery doses of Naga or Raja chilli, the hottest on earth. And you cannot just get away from Angami territory without tasting galho, an herbal rice broth that is a minimalist avatar of the north Indian biryani.

NMVA members selling pacakaged Naga food at Kisama Heritage Village

“The specialty of galho is that it is prepared with herbs such as gajo and liezienuo that grow only in the wild,” says Kaisa Rio, president of Nagaland Women Volunteer Association. “Galho ingredients include fermented soybean, ginger and garlic paste, and a tinge of pork fat. But vegetarians can have it without the lard,” she says.

Others of her ilk explain what go into exotic delicacies such as pfhidi-calhe or hornet larvae snack and kenia nula gacha or sesame with snails. For the not-so-adventurous are absolute scorchers such as machihan or Lotha-style chilli curry, and yes, the akhuni or fermented soybean delicacy of the Sumis. You have the option of washing it all down with rice beer.

Hornbill Festival, they say, gives you a taste of what Nagaland is all about. If you aren’t satiated, you can Longkhum it. That is as close a synonym you can get for the process of leaving your spirit behind to ensure a retrieval trip.

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About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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